Ebru Umar’s wretched columns are a small price to pay for freedom of expression

Ebru Umar is a fool. The Dutch Metro columnist’s holiday in the Turkish resort of Kusadasi has been indefinitely extended while police decide whether to charge her with insulting the country’s president on Twitter. She appears to be bearing it bravely: last night she tweeted a picture of the sunset from her balcony. This in itself makes her a rarity among freedom of speech campaigners in Turkey, such as Erol Zavar, since for most of them sunlight is a rare privilege. Zavar, the editor of the leftwing magazine Odak, was given a life sentence in 2000 for ‘changing the constitutional order by force’ and is currently fighting a losing battle with cancer in a high-security jail in Ankara. Umar, meanwhile, is sipping tea in the sunshine and posting selfies from the hair salon.

Umar is the type of shock columnist who attracts praise because ze neemt geen blad voor de mond – a Dutch expression that loosely means she speaks her mind. Sadly, it seems she has little discernible mind to speak of. She was arrested for a couple of critical tweets about Erdogan, and recently she signed off a pre-emptive strike against Erdogan’s supporters in the Dutch Turkish community with the words: ‘I have only one thing to say to you: go fuck yourself’. This is not somebody in any danger of being mistaken for a fearless martyr to the free word in the mould of Vaclav Havel. When another Dutch journalist, Frederike Geerdink, was expelled from Turkey after spending 25 years reporting on the Kurdish civil war, Umar responded in a radio broadcast: ‘What business do you have there? Go away! If you’re a journalist in Turkey you know there’s a chance of vanishing behind bars’. But let us be charitable and call Umar a late recruit to the cause of press freedom. More vexing is the pinned tweet at the top of her timeline: ‘Dear tweeps, I’ve been Ebru Umar for almost 46 years now. Trust me: I will remain Ebru Umar for the rest of my life.’ Forty-six years on earth distilled into the hollow cry: ‘Look at me! Point the camera at me! I’m the story! Not them! Me! Me! Me!’

But no matter: freedom of speech is not just the freedom of beetle-browed intellectuals to debate the influence of Gramsci over a frothy macchiato. It is also the freedom of simple souls to say witless things on Twitter about their ancestral homeland’s government. The Dutch government says it is working hard behind the scenes to secure Umar’s release, and so it should. She has had phone calls from the prime minister and foreign minister, she says, and been treated courteously by the police. None of this, however, should detract from the wider issue of Erdogan’s abhorrent attitude to human rights, which has been tolerated for too long.

Europe, with the Netherlands as chairman, must wise up and realise that it holds the trump card here. Erdogan has promoted himself as the fixer who can solve Europe’s refugee crisis in return for visa-free travel for his citizens, accelerated membership of the European Union and a €6 billion funding package. Now the Turkish president hopes to use that deal as a lever to seize the initiative on freedom of expression and lower the threshold for EU accession. The likes of Umar and Jan Böhnermann are decoys in a deeper campaign against modernity. But for all his empty threats to dump busloads of refugees at the Greek border, Erdogan can ill afford to miss out on that €6 billion bonanza. It should be impressed on him that EU membership is out of the question unless Turkey drastically improves its record on human rights. The country ranks 151st out of 180 countries on the latest Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, the internet is routinely censored, trials of journalists are held behind closed doors and the president’s bodyguards recently assaulted Turkish journalists who tried to ask critical questions during a tour of the United States.

Umar deserves to be defended to the hilt not because of her wretched columns, but because of what she represents. It was distressing to see an MP from the misleadingly named Denk (“Think”) party in the Dutch Parliament argue on Nieuwsuur that the Netherlands had no business intervening because Umar had failed to comply with Turkish censorship standards. The benefit to society of letting conscientious writers check the power of presumptive dictators far outweighs the irritation caused by attention-seeking columnists. If the west can’t stand up for its own simpletons, what message are we sending to the likes of Idris Yılmaz and Vildan Atmaca, two reporters from pro-Kurdish news agencies who are currently in detention facing trial for posting anti-Erdogan cartoons on Facebook?

Yet if Umar simply reverts to hurling playground insults at Erdogan and his followers when she returns to the Netherlands, it will be a pretty miserable return on the efforts made on her behalf. Perhaps she can use her international fame to focus on the excesses of Erdogan’s regime and the harassment, intimidation and abuse of process that are part of everyday life for journalists in Turkey who don’t have a direct line to the Dutch prime minister. It will mean venturing beyond the hair salon and the Aegean balcony, but you never know; forty-six isn’t too late to start.

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